Consequently, instead of taking significant action or offering such clarification, the Iranian regime instead issued further vague threats, this time in response to the Trump administration’s latest punitive measures against Iran’s non-nuclear activities. Coinciding with the decision that preserves the JCPOA over the short term, the White House announced new sanctions for 14 individuals and entities, including Sadeq Larijani, the head of the Iranian judiciary.
As Reuters reported on Saturday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry specifically responded to the action against Larijani, saying that it “crossed all red lines of conduct in the international community and is a violation of international law and will surely be answered by a serious reaction of the Islamic Republic.” But the Iranian judiciary itself has also been variously accused of violating international law, as in the case of its usage of the death penalty in cases of non-violent crimes and against defendants who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes.
Human rights abuses by the judiciary and other hardline Iranian institutions had been given renewed focus over the previous two weeks as tens of thousands of Iranians carried out demonstrations in at least 80 cities, leading to predictable crackdowns and threats of execution for leading participants in the uprising. One Iranian lawmaker stated that 3,700 people had been detained as of Friday, and the intelligence network of the National Council of Resistance of Iran determined the number of arrests to be more than twice that number. In addition, at least 22 people, and possibly more than 50, were killed either while in detention or in clashes with security forces.
Most media are now reporting that these protests are fading from view, but many also believe that they will have far-reaching consequences including the potential for resurgent unrest at some point in the near future. This has provided an unexpected backdrop for commentary on the Trump administration’s recent decisions, both with regard to the nuclear deal and with regard to broader sanctions policy. In the first place, the crackdown on those protests helps to justify punitive actions against Larijani and others. But at the same time, the protests may complicate discussions about the possible return of American sanctions.
Fox News published an article on Sunday by former State Department official YJ Fischer, in which she criticized Trump’s threats against the JCPOA, specifically in context of the potential for domestically-driven regime change in the Islamic Republic. Fischer argued that re-imposing sanctions could undermine that prospect by giving rise to a surge of nationalism, and that they would be ineffective at accomplishing broader policy goals in any event.
Fischer went on to suggest that Congress revoke the requirements for the president’s period approval of the JCPOA, with an eye toward focusing the White House’s attention on alternative measures for responding to the protests. These include further sanctions against human rights violators, like those imposed on Larijani, as well as measures aimed at improving the flow of communication within the heavily censored Islamic Republic, so as to improve the organizational capabilities of anti-government activists.
As with many other critics of Trump’s stance on the nuclear deal, Fischer’s argument highlights the lack of existing support for that stance among American allies and the other signatories of the JCPOA. It bears mentioning, however, that that situation could change in the time between now and the next waiver deadline. Indeed, the Associated Press reported on Monday that the German government has expressed interest in sitting down with American counterparts in order to acquire a better understanding of what the White House is demanding of its European partners as a condition for the preservation of the agreement.
European leaders have generally been steadfast in their support of the JCPOA, but have also expressed a belief in the need to better rein in Iranian behavior. This latter trend seems to have accelerated in recent months, presumably as a result of the White House’s ongoing outreach to those figures over issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile activities and interference into the affairs of nearby Middle Eastern nations.
Even in absence of such communications from the Trump administration, some European governments might have nevertheless strengthened their positions on the Islamic Republic due to its own activities. Last week, Reuters reported that Germany had summoned the Iranian ambassador over the issue of Iranian operatives spying on Germany soil. A Pakistani man was convicted last year for operating in such a capacity. The individual also reportedly gathered information on an individual in France.
The specific targets of this spying were persons with ties to the state of Israel, a fact that was highlighted in the Germany foreign ministry’s statement on the matter. This in turn speaks to the cooperative relationship between the German and Israeli governments, which could provide support for the Trump administration’s project of swaying German policy in favor of measures to strengthen the nuclear deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the most vocal critics of the JCPOA during its negotiation, warning that it would not bar Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon but would instead “pave the way.” Accordingly, the Israeli leadership has been eagerly supportive of the Trump administration’s efforts to compel the renegotiation or supplementation of that agreement.
On Monday, Bloomberg reported upon Netanyahu’s specific backing of Trump’s “ultimatum” to European leaders regarding the future of the nuclear deal. I think it’s the last chance for the Western world to fix the deal,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying. “They need to make changes that will prevent Iran from advancing unperturbed to nuclear weapons. That is what this deal allows.”
But Trump’s ultimatum was directed not only at European partners but also at the US Congress. In fact, in expressing its willingness to hear Trump’s demands, the German foreign ministry noted that it understood the American president to have been targeting lawmakers in his own country “first and foremost” when he made his latest statement on nuclear sanctions. The Washington Examiner also used the word “ultimatum” on Monday in its own take on Trump’s statement, which it said had significantly increased presume on congressional negotiations over a bill that would revise the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act and address Trump’s demands.
Although European leaders may be waiting for additional clarification of their own expected role, the White House has made rather clear its demands for congressional lawmakers. The Examiner quoted Trump as saying, “Any bill I sign must include four critical components,” namely the removal of “sunset” provisions that allow restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity to expire after 15 years, immediate access to all sites targeted by international inspectors, the imposition of new sanctions on nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that were not mentioned in the text of the JCPOA, and provisions for the automatic resumption of nuclear-related sanctions if Iran violates the deal in any way.
Prior to Trump’s issuance of this ultimatum, it was suggested that his decision on the sanctions waivers might be determined in large part by the perceived progress of congressional negotiations on this matter. By most accounts there has been little to no progress since the prospective bill was first outlined. The president’s ultimatum has supposedly imposed a firm deadline on those deadlines while also giving the White House about four months to obtain buy-in from the other negotiating parties.
Progress may have already been made on this latter front as it relates to Germany, France, and Britain. But the Trump administration may have a more difficult time with China and especially Russia. Reuters reported on Monday that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had definitively rejected the notion of Russian support for Trump’s proposed changes to the existing agreement. Those changes, he said, would be “absolutely unacceptable for Iran” and could also have implications for efforts to negotiate with other countries such as North Korea over their nuclear activities.
But Moscow’s defense of the Iranian position is almost certainly related to the established alliance between those two countries. Yet the durability of that alliance has often been presented as an open question. Although it has been strengthened by their mutual participation in the defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during that country’s seven-year civil war, many analysts have suggested that Russian and Iranian interests could diverge in Syria.
The White House may have a clearer picture of prospects for that divergence at the end of the month, when representatives of Iran, Russia, and Turkey are expected to gather in the town of Sochi for the latest round of talks on a political resolution to the Syrian Civil War. Notably, this comes after Al Jazeera reported that Turkey had summoned its Russian and Iranian ambassadors to protest reported violations of the de-escalation zones that they had established in Syria.
According to Agence France Presse, 95 percent of these violations have been by pro-regime forces. Additionally, previous reports have attributed the overwhelming majority of these violations to Iranian forces or their local proxies, while Russia has been credited with serious efforts to enforce ceasefires and pursue a political solution that Iran might regard as an unfavorable compromise.